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Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What is the problem with the Laputans' focus on astronomy and celestial events in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 2?

The Laputans have determined that earth has narrowly missed destruction in the tail of a comet on at least one previous occasion, and they predict the next comet will appear in 130 years and will likely destroy the planet. They also believe this comet may destroy the sun. Their calculations are not entirely certain, only expressing a probability of this destruction. Even if they are correct in their prediction (although modern readers can easily deduce otherwise) the event is more than a century away. This does not give the Laputans any comfort. Gulliver says, "They are so perpetually alarmed with the apprehensions of these, and the like impending dangers, that they can neither sleep quietly in their beds, nor have any relish for the common pleasures and amusements of life." They obsess over the health of the sun and its appearance upon rising and setting, and Gulliver compares their conversations on this matter to children who enjoy being frightened by spooky stories. The Laputans' example serves as a caution against allowing purely theoretical ideas and fears to grow unchecked to the point that they drain the joy from the reality of life as it happens.

How are the lives of women on Laputa unconventional as presented in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 2?

The women of Laputa enjoy freedom unlike women in the other societies Gulliver has visited. They are highly flirtatious with strangers who arrive from the lands below, and they also enjoy visits below so much that they are reluctant to return—and sometimes do not. The women never appear to be punished for this behavior. Instead, their husbands become so obsessed with their wives' possible infidelities that they overlook the realities of their wives' infidelities: "the mistress and lover may proceed to the greatest familiarities before his face, if he be but provided with paper and implements, and without his flapper at his side." As is the problem with so many aspects of Laputan society, their obsession with theory blinds them to the events transpiring before their very eyes. Laputan men are so engaged in their world of ideas that, unlike their wives, they forget to engage fully with life.

What does the Laputans' attitude toward politics reveal about them in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 2?

Gulliver says the Laputans have a "strong disposition" toward current events and politics. They debate and argue details of party opinions and freely offer "their judgments in matters of state." Gulliver compares them to mathematicians he has known in Europe who were likewise politically engaged, even though Gulliver himself can see no connection between mathematics and politics, and he considers such thinkers highly uninformed on the matters they debate. He believes they reflect a tendency in human nature to hold strong opinions about matters they know little about on a practical level. Gulliver believes the practice of politics is too far removed from the theoretical sciences that occupy so much of the Laputans' thought for them to form opinions on matters of government. It also appears to be a dig at mathematicians and scientists of Europe who have provided Gulliver with little evidence that they actually understand the principles of governance as well as they understand the machinations of physics. In practice, Gulliver's assessment carries merit. The Laputans tend to immerse themselves in ideas to an extent that their daily lives suffer for it, from extreme anxiety to poorly built houses to ill-fitting suits. They fail to recognize how their quality of life is flawed; therefore, they do not consider seeking leaders to fix these problems. For them, politics, like mathematics, is something that plays out in abstract theories. They don't expect leadership to improve their lives in any meaningful sense. As a result, they turn their governance over to a king who embodies the same kind of abstract thinking, and who would not hesitate to crush them with his floating land mass if he felt such a measure necessary.

What technological advances do the Laputans have that exceed those of Europe in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 3?

For all their theoretical understanding of mathematics and physics, the Laputans appear unable to construct a sturdy house or tailor a good suit of clothes. On the day-to-day level, their operations are inferior to what Gulliver has seen in Europe. At the same time, they have been able to build equipment for studying the universe—items such as astrolabes and telescopes—that far exceed those Gulliver has seen in Europe. He is particularly impressed with their telescopes and lenses, which are smaller but far more powerful than European models. These implements have allowed the Laputans to discover stars, satellites around Mars, and other celestial bodies otherwise unknown and unseen. They can also calculate the trajectory of comets with impressive precision. Their crowning achievement in engineering and application of their knowledge is, of course, the floating island of Laputa itself. Using a series of magnets on the ground, the island does not simply float but can also navigate along both horizontal and vertical planes with relative ease.

How do the events in Lindalino illustrate the ways citizens can stand up to abuse of power in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 3?

The citizens of Lindalino use the considerable knowledge of physics that makes Laputan society notable as part of their own defense. Three years before Gulliver's arrival, and early in the current king's reign, the king brings Laputa to hover over Lindalino, the second largest city on the island of Balnibarbi below. The residents of Lindalino respond to their oppression by closing the city gates, seizing the government, and creating magnets that interfered with the controls of the floating island. Lindalino resists through days of blocked sun and rain, and the king attempts to crush the city with Laputa's bulk. The fearlessness of the citizens in Lindalino ensures their victory as they push the king to an untenable position. The people of Lindalino take the calculated risk that the king is unwilling to destroy himself in order to subdue them. Fortunately, their plan is successful; the magnets create such a powerful force that the king must abort his plan and negotiate with Lindalino's demands lest Laputa be destroyed along with the city below. The example shows that it is possible for oppressed people to resist a monarch and force change.

Who are the projectors in Balnibarbi, and what is the fundamental flaw in their plans as presented in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 4?

The projectors of Balnibarbi—which should be read with emphasis on the word project, so they are project-ors—were originally a group of land-dwellers who visited Laputa for about five months and returned with "a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits." In short, they have a little knowledge with which they set forth their sweeping plans to change virtually everything below. Their primary flaw is their lack of knowledge about how little they know. The Laputans spend their entire lives in contemplation of abstract mathematical and physical concepts, and their own world bears the limitations of their ability to practically apply this knowledge, as evidenced in their architecture, for example. The projectors have five months of experience with these concepts and believe they know enough to completely reconstruct the society on the ground below. As a result, the projects go unfinished, buildings are poorly constructed, fields produce no food. Yet neither the projectors nor the people recognize the gaps in what they know or are taught, and the projects are deemed merely unfinished with plans to complete them in the future.

How does the attitude of Balnibarbi's residents toward knowledge and learning contrast with Gulliver's previous experiences in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 5?

The Brobdingnagians studied only what they believed to be practical, to the point that they eschewed abstract thought entirely. The Laputans engage in abstract thinking at a level that impedes their social interactions and makes day-to-day life difficult for them. In Balnibarbi, they attempt to use abstract scientific principles for practical purposes, but they do so in such an extreme and partially informed way that the results are disastrous. They want to acquire and use knowledge, but they misinterpret what they know and have no understanding of their limitations. This imperfect understanding leads them to agricultural practices such as using pigs to plow fields by placing acorns and other treats for the pigs in the soil of a field, then allowing the pigs to churn up the earth in search of them and, as a bonus, their droppings fertilize the ground. The process doubles the amount of labor by requiring farmers to essentially plant twice, and it yields few to no crops. Yet the experiments continue. Another experiment, spider silk as a clothing fiber, uses the flies caught in webs to pre-dye the threads. The "universal artist," one of the most respected among the academy's faculty, proposes to condense air into "a dry tangible substance," sow chaff instead of seeds for crops, and create a breed of sheep with no wool. Each of these proposals, even if possible to execute successfully, has little purpose. In Balnibarbi, they conduct experiments purely for the sake of conducting experiments and making claims of progress. The exaggerated absurdity of these experiments provides a commentary on the expansion of academic studies taking place in the 1600s and 1700s. In some ways it is predictable that scientific inquiry operate in some darkness, but such experiments can also lead to frivolous studies. The job of serious academia is to strike a balance between the legitimate but unconventional studies that can lead to real progress and the poorly conceived studies that waste time and resources. Such protocols were not fleshed out in the 1600s and are taken to an extreme consequence in the projectors' academies.

How does the projector's work on a complete book of arts and sciences show problems with the ways knowledge is shared in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 5?

One of the projectors in the academy has created a machine that, with the help of his students, will allow him to write a complete text accounting for the arts and sciences. The machine is a large grid made of cubes, and each face of the cube is inscribed with words from the Balnibarbians' language. A crank on the side of the machine is turned, the cubes move, and new words appear in different order. Student scribes then write down the words as they appear before the crank is turned again, and this is how pages are produced for this great work that will compile all the knowledge of the arts and sciences. No one, including Gulliver, seems to recognize how haphazard this process is and how it can provide little that is sensible, let alone useful for study. At the same time, it fits the Balnibarbian model in which all knowledge appears to be gained and used in a similarly haphazard fashion, as the other experiments in the academy demonstrate.

What are some of the outlandish political ideas the academy professors present in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 6, and how do they criticize government practices?

A doctor proposes that all members of a legislative body be treated for imbalances in their humors—based on the ancient Greek model that postulated that health is achieved by a balance of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. This simplistic assessment of human anatomy was a small part of medical practice at the time of the novel's publication. The projector's proposal that government use the association between mental faculties and the state of physical fluids is presented here as a way of evaluating character. Such a methodology, if adopted in government, would be a poor means of personal evaluation, but perhaps no more absurd than the existing government practices of evaluating character based on personal connections and social standing. The doctor proposes that ministers be mildly physically abused to improve memory. The approach of causing leaders physical pain has a strong likelihood of creating legislators who are angry or fearful. None of these create a positive environment for making laws, but the statement expresses clear frustration with the political process and a desire to abuse these inefficient lawmakers. A professor proposes that senators be obligated to vote the opposite of their opinions, which would better serve the public good. The situational irony of this statement actually makes it less outlandish than some of the projectors' other suggestions. The suggestion provides strong criticism against legislators' decision-making skills and implies naked self-interest on the part of lawmakers. They are unable to make good decisions and consider the public good, so the opposite of what they want to do must be a better way. A professor decides that disagreements between representatives can be settled by pairing representatives with similar head sizes, then surgically grafting different halves of their brains together to create better understanding between opposing viewpoints. Like the suggestion of punching and kicking ministers to improve their memories, this speaks to a desire to do violence to the representatives. More than that, the idea shows how futile political arguments are and how parties can never be persuaded to agree on an issue or find compromise—short of radical, and impossible, brain surgery.

Why does Gulliver fail to recognize the craziest of the academy professors' political ideas in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 6?

Government, as Gulliver has experienced it, is so riddled with its own absurd disagreements and dysfunction that he no longer has any kind of reliable compass by which to judge proposals to improve government as sound or unsound. The system is so broken, in Gulliver's observation, that no possibility is too outlandish for him, except for the proposals he hears that might require rulers and representatives to consider the people and the interests of the common good. Government is so removed from public service that leaders might shift their perspective to help the people is an outlandish idea. By contrast, plans such as the proposal that leaders examine human excrement in search of plots against them seem reasonable. The criticism at the time the novel was published would likely have been aimed at the complications of Britain's partisan conflicts between Whigs and Tories, but the frustration with government reflected in Gulliver's responses to the projectors' proposals could apply to nearly any time in history or location in the world.

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